I finished Mansfield Park the other day (the book, not the building). It's been quite some time since I'd read it before, because, I'm afraid to say, it's my least favourite Austen. Or, should I say, it was my least favourite, until this reading. (Be forewarned: if you haven't read the book, and you're one of those people who must have suspense in order to enjoy a novel, stop right here. I'm the type who reads the end of a book first - a habit which I'm utterly unrepentant of - and will unashamedly drop spoilers all over the place. End of warning.)
Unlike some other Janeites, I didn't dislike this story because of its heroine. Yes, Fanny is shy. Fanny is timid. Fanny is mousy. Fanny lets herself be bullied. But I get that. Okay, there are times during the reading of that book when I just want to go "C'mon, girl, stick UP for yourself!" But I know that Fanny can't, she just hasn't got the opportunities. No, I disliked the story for a couple of reasons: mostly, because everyone is so mean to Fanny, and also because Edmund is so terribly dense.
It's all the other people in the story that had me disliking it, not Fanny. Aunt Norris, of course, is nothing but a horrible, despicable bully. She's probably the character who is the closest to being a "bad guy" in all of Austen (although that might be a toss-up between her, Lady Catherine, Sir Walter, and General Tilney). I'm still not sure that I find her come-uppance at the end entirely satisfying, although at least she does get a come-uppance, which is more than can be said for some of the other Despicables in Austen. Aunt Bertram is a lump of inertia (ADD, Inattentive Subtype, I'd say.). Sir Thomas is, well, pretty much a despot. Tom a jerk. Maria and Julia cattish airheads. Mr Rushworth a dimwit (but as that's his whole role in the piece, one can't fault him for that). And of course the Crawfords, they're terrible. All around evil people.
Or so I remembered. You see, that's what I had against Edmund, that he was so very dense that he didn't see what Mary Crawford really was, and preferred her to Fanny. And that he didn't get Henry Crawford either. I thought that Edmund didn't deserve Fanny, and that the ending didn't justify all the emotional turmoil Austen puts the reader through in feeling with and for Fanny.
But in this reading, I saw it differently. For one, Fanny doesn't suffer nearly as much as I had remembered; I think in the past, I felt more for her than she does for herself. And for another, Edmund became so much more human. As a hero, he leaves quite a bit to be desired. As an ordinary guy, he's actually - well, kind of endearing, and his character makes a lot of sense. He's a young man who has never been around women much. He went to an all-boys school, an all-male university, and then comes home and hangs out with his airhead sisters, his indolent mother, his bully of an aunt, and - Fanny. Along comes an extremely pretty, vivacious girl, who is (and this was my other big revelation) really, really nice - is it any wonder he falls hard, and fast, for her? And that in his mind, he endows her with all the good qualities he feels a woman should have? Building someone we find attractive into the image of what we think they should be, I think we've all done that (okay, I've done it. If you haven't, good for you - although I'm not sure I believe you.). In Edmund's case, it doesn't mean he's dense, it just means he's a normal twenty-four-year-old without much experience with (the opposite) sex.
And, as I said, Mary Crawford really is nice. She's the only person who is ever kind to Fanny and supports her against people's bullying; she's considerate, and she's fun. Her main (and fatal) flaw is that she does not have "good principles"; she does not share Edmund and Fanny's value system, does not understand where they are coming from. And unlike Edmund, Fanny sees it all along - but then, she does not have physical attraction to muddle her vision. The only thing Fanny's vision is muddled by is her low self-esteem. And there's great hope, in the end of the story, that that's a fault that'll be rectified by time, maturity, and being loved for who she is.
Incidentally, Steve doesn't like Mansfield. Not enough bears in it for his liking. Now where did I put The House at Pooh Corner?
Life, the Universe, and Mansfield Park. Which Austen should I re-read next?
PS: I got the lovely illustration image at the top here. Another good site for Janeites is this one. And if you want to know why those sites are called "Mollands" and "Pemberley", respectively, you'll just have to read the books, won't you?